Once you can cope with an anxiety attack, the next stage is to change the conditions that lead to the anxiety response. Anxiety is like a shortcut. When faced with uncertainty, the normal response is to stop, consider what might happen, and make a decision based on the best prediction you can make. The anxious person doesn’t go through this process but instead jumps into feeling afraid. No one enjoys uncertainty. There is always a tinge of anxiousness when you don’t know what the future holds. But jumping straight into fear is the worst way to handle the situation. Fear is almost never a good advisor. It blocks clear decision-making, and it exaggerates the risks and dangers that might lie ahead.
This gives us a clear picture of what needs to change. The anxious person needs to stop making the leap into fear. To do that requires a new way of approaching uncertainty. Life is always uncertain, and until you can embrace that fact, you will imagine risks, dangers, and threats that never materialize. Yet suffering in your imagination is just as painful — perhaps more painful, since dealing with a crisis is always easier than waiting for one in a state of dread.
The Anxious Self
Many spiritual traditions speak of separation as the real cause of human misery. Separation can mean being apart from God, your soul, or the higher self. But the terminology isn’t important; even the word “spiritual” isn’t crucial. What is crucial is that people are divided inside. One part of the self opposes another part. With guilty people, the good fights against the bad. With anxious people, the strong part of the self is at war with the weak part.
When a situation arises that can be handled well, the strong part feels confident, competent, in charge and in control. When uncertainty crops up, the weak part feels afraid, helpless, and hopeless. Anxious people never settle this inner conflict. They are so divided that when they feel afraid, the weak part is “the real me.” When they are not afraid, the strong part is “the real me.” In fact, neither is the real self. The real self is beyond conflict; it is whole and at peace. So the long-term approach to anxiety is to rise above the inner war to find a self that is more whole.
When the self is divided and in conflict, there is always a hidden aspect of judgment against the self. Anxious people judge against themselves so much that they usually seek a stronger person to handle the uncertainties and difficulties that seem so overwhelming. It can certainly mask the problem for a while to marry a strong spouse or rely on a powerful parent. But finding a substitute isn’t the same as finding yourself. Anxious people are blocked from finding themselves because they quickly run into self-judgment, and this makes them even more insecure. Self-judgment is the voice that says:
You can’t handle it. Remember the last time you fell apart? This time will be the same.
You’re too weak. Inside you’re still a helpless child. Other people stand on their own, but not you.
You aren’t smart enough. Other people can find the right solution, but not you. You just stand there looking blank.
You aren’t good enough. All these fearful things are a punishment. You deserve what you get.
As you can see, to live with a divided self is misery, and anxious people dread themselves more than they dread imaginary dangers. The chief thing they dread is anxiety, of course, but anxiety is more than a bad sensation. It is rooted in the weak self that jumps to conclusions of the kind just listed: I am too weak, stupid, insecure, and unworthy to handle life on my own. The first part of healing is to realize what is going on. The second part is to identify with the real you; then the war inside will be irrelevant.
Your real self is always present but is masked by the trappings of everyday existence. Whether we recognize it or not, we all live in a state of separation, which means that the divided self is the one we identify with. Anxious people have a worse time than others, but even the healthiest and most secure among us is divided. If they weren’t, they would be in contact with God, the soul, or the higher self twenty-four hours a day. I mention this only to emphasize that moving out of the divided state doesn’t happen overnight. Any anxious person needs to learn how to deal with fear and panic on a day-to-day basis while at the same time never losing sight of the long-range goal: finding the real self.
Moving Toward Healing
You can’t find something if you are looking in the wrong place. This holds especially true for the real self, because we all look for solutions from our divided self, and then we trust its answers. For anxious people, fear is actually a kind of solution. It provides a short cut, as we saw. It keeps the person vigilant. It gives the feeling of being concerned, engaged, and busy. And since fear is unwelcome, it drives people into all kinds of escapist activities. Every distraction from alcohol and drugs to television and the movies is constantly available. It’s no surprise that millions of people would rather accommodate their lives to being afraid rather than seeking real healing.
Yet real healing does exist. Because anxious people are insecure, they need to pursue a path to healing that reinforces itself. Outside help is valuable, of course, but anxious people tend to use stronger people as crutches. The trick here is to accept that self-healing is the only way. Once you can accept this truth, which is quite painful to anyone in a state of insecurity and fear. The next part is to keep reinforcing the process. Every day needs to be seen objectively as a step in the right direction.
One method is to keep a simple daily log. In it you record the positive things you did for your anxiety. For the sake of being realistic, it’s also good to record the negative things, but they shouldn’t become discouraging or self-pitying. Rather than keeping a full-fledged journal, which most people can’t find the time to sustain after a few weeks or months, make your log a simple check list, ticking off what went right and what went wrong. At the bottom of the page you can insert comments if you have the impulse to.
I stood up for myself, I spoke my mind
I felt strong
I had a moment of being real with someone
I dealt with a panicky moment
I started to feel anxious but it didn’t progress
I felt optimistic about myself
I had hope for the future
I felt some peace and calm
I survived a difficult situation
I appreciated myself; I congratulated myself
I felt worthy; my esteem was high
I didn’t fall into my usual reaction
I had a bright idea
The world seemed like a safe place to be
I felt accepted
I didn’t cling to anyone or use them as a crutch
I faced a difficult choice
I didn’t stand up for myself; I wanted to speak my mind but didn’t
I felt weakness
I didn’t get real with anyone
I suffered through one or more panic attacks
I had a lot of low-level anxiety that didn’t go away
I felt pessimistic about myself
The future looked hopeless
I felt no peace and calm
I caved in to a difficult situation
I criticized myself and fell into self-judgment
I felt unworthy; my esteem was low
I related to people who made me feel bad about myself
I gave in to someone else’s negative views
I didn’t feel safe
I felt rejected
I was clingy
I procrastinated and put off a difficult choice
I wanted someone to rescue me
I kept wishing that things would get better on their own
If you decide to include the negative roster, be sure to note if the item you have ticked off is improving. Negatives can be useful to show you what you are moving away from. But they are not useful if you use them to add to your self-judgment, since self-judgment is the root of the problem.
It’s key to have more positive events than negative ones. Happiness is built up by having good days, not by reaching for an unattainable ideal in the future. The same is true for being non-anxious. You must find it today, as best you can. By paying attention to your anxiety one day at a time, the hidden healing processes in mind and body can begin to work, because you are giving them a real opening here and now.
In the end, however, the best healer is the real self. It is found by walking your own path, call it the path to self-awareness, God, or higher consciousness. The methods have been outlined in all the world’s wisdom traditions. First and foremost, you need to make a real connection with the level of peace, silence, and security that lies beneath the turbulence of daily stress and strain. The most reliable method is meditation. If that seems unworkable, then sit for fifteen minutes twice a day in a quiet place, close your eyes and breathe. Place your attention on your heart and simply be. If you notice that your thoughts have distracted you, breathe again and once more place your attention on your heart.
This technique will accustom you to being with yourself. Anxious people misjudge being alone. They identify it with fear, loneliness, and insecurity. That’s perfectly understandable given their history of fear. But being alone is your ground state, the basis of your existence. It’s not your enemy. It’s not a danger zone. So take some time to undo the mistaken judgment that alone and lonely are the same. They aren’t. The doorway to a lifetime of safety, security, and self-worth lies at the level of the real self, and you were born to open it.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle